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Iran Letter Criticizes U.S. Policy, Sidesteps Negotiations

May 9, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: These images of 52 Americans held hostage at the United States embassy in Tehran have defined the United States’ strained relationship with Iran for nearly 27 years.

Although the U.S. has officially severed ties with Iran, there have been sporadic efforts at communication over the years. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Iran helped the United States overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But Iran’s nuclear ambitions have escalated tensions between the two countries. Yesterday, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sent President Bush a letter that marked the first direct communication in decades between U.S. And Iranian heads of state.

In it, he took the United States to task for its support of Israel, the war in Iraq, and obliquely its criticism of Iran’s nuclear development program. “Why is it,” he wrote, “that any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East regions is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime?”

“Those in power have specific time in office and do not rule indefinitely,” he continued. “But their names will be recorded in history and will be constantly judged in the immediate and distant futures. The people will scrutinize our presidencies.”

The U.S. Has asked the United Nations Security Council to demand that Iran stop its program of nuclear enrichment. Go-betweens in Europe — mainly Britain, France and Germany — have led that charge, attempting to declare Iran a threat to international peace as a first step towards sanctions. But those negotiations reached another impasse today after China and Russia resisted.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is involved in talks this week at the U.N., weighed in.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: … the political directors are examining how to show Iran that there is a path that could lead them to a civil nuclear program that would be acceptable to the international community.

We are also, however, very clear that there is a path that if Iran continues down it is going to lead them to isolation, and that is why we are continuing to discuss and, indeed, intend to propose and pass a resolution that makes very clear to Iran that living up to their obligations, the obligations set out by the board of governors, is obligatory.

GWEN IFILL: There are some officials, among them U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who say the U.S. should deal with Iran directly. Annan spoke to Jim Lehrer last week.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. Secretary General: And I think it would be good if the U.S. were to be at the table with the Europeans, the Iranians, the Russians to try and work this out. If everybody, all the stakeholders and the key players, were around the table, I think it would be possible to work out a package that will satisfy the consents of everybody.

GWEN IFILL: In Florida today, President Bush repeated his desire for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear dispute but did not comment directly on Ahmadinejad’s letter.

Significane of the letter

Flynt Leverett
Former CIA Middle East Analyst
The Iranian leadership has, over the time that the Bush administration has been in office, tried a number of times to open a direct channel, open direct negotiations with the United States. This letter simply highlights those efforts.

GWEN IFILL: Now, more on the tough talk on Iran. Flynt Leverett, a former CIA Middle East analyst, served on the National Security Council staff during President Bush's first term. He was then an adviser to the John Kerry presidential campaign and is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Michael Rubin worked on Iran policy as a staff assistant in the office of the secretary of defense from 2002 to 2004. He's now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the book "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos."

Let's talk, first of all, about the Iranian president's unusually long, kind of rambling, scolding letter that he sent to President Bush yesterday. Anything significant about that, Flynt Leverett?

FLYNT LEVERETT, Former CIA Middle East Analyst: I think what's significant is that what is underscored is that the Iranian leadership has, over the time that the Bush administration has been in office, tried a number of times to open a direct channel, open direct negotiations with the United States. This letter simply highlights those efforts.

Those efforts have gone on, not only before President Ahmadinejad was elected, but since President Ahmadinejad took office in Tehran last year. And it really raises the question: If the Iranians are willing to pursue direct negotiations with the United States, why isn't the administration taking them up on it?

GWEN IFILL: It raises the question, but the letter doesn't actually say -- in fact, the letter seems to be a series of questions about the shortcomings of the United States. Did you read it as an opening?

MICHAEL RUBIN, American Enterprise Institute: I certainly did not. If anything, I think it's going to raise real concerns in Washington about the nature of the Iranian regime.

The letter questions, once again, the Holocaust. It questions, once again, whether there was any cover-up to 9/11. It's going to make people in Washington very, very worried about who we would be dealing with in Iran and whether we should throw our lot to the Iranian government, rather than reach out more towards the Iranian people, as a way to try to moderate the Iranian government.

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me. Why dismiss it out of hand like the administration did, just give it the back of its hand?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, there's two reasons. First of all, Iran has been conditioned to be rewarded for intransigence. The United States has cast its lot with the multilateral diplomacy of the E.U.-3, and that process is still ongoing.

Iran needs to deal not just with the United States, but with the IAEA and the European Union. And Secretary of State Rice has said: We support that process.

The other reason is 80 percent of the Iranian people are pretty fed up with their own government, with its economy, with its politics, with the system. And the last thing we want to do is what we did in 1953 and 1979, which is throw our support to an unpopular regime against the will of the Iranian people. We shouldn't make the same mistake three times.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Flynt Leverett? Why wouldn't going to the table to speak eye-to-eye with the Iranians, why wouldn't that be accommodations on the part of the United States?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I don't think negotiations in themselves are an accommodation or a concession to the Iranians. Negotiations are how the United States pursues its interests with regimes with which it has differences in situations where you may not immediately want to resort to the use of military force.

Negotiations are the way that we pursue our interests, and for us to forego that channel on I don't know quite what grounds on the part of the administration, that make any sense, to forego that channel doesn't serve our interests and makes no strategic sense.

Concerns from both sides

Michael Rubin
Former Pentagon Adviser
The U.S. has three main concerns: Iran's violent opposition to the peace process; weapons of mass destruction; and Iran's support for terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: What should be on the table, if there were to be discussions, even back-channel discussions? Should it just be the nuclear weapons program? Should it be WMDs of a different kind? Should it be human rights?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, U.S. Policy has been pretty consistent across the Clinton and the Bush administrations. The U.S. has three main concerns: Iran's violent opposition to the peace process; weapons of mass destruction; and Iran's support for terrorism. Throw into that the Bush administration's concern with regard to democracy and human rights, that's what the Americans would want on the table.

Iran, of course, has its own concerns. The question is: Again, why should we sit down and just talk about one issue when there's so much that we could discuss? And also there's the other question of: Who within the Iranian system would we be discussing it with?

GWEN IFILL: Why not direct talks as part of this whole mix, if you're going to broaden this out to talk about everything?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I would agree. I don't think an issue-by-issue approach is going to work. We've actually tried that with Iran on a limited basis in the past. And even where we've made progress on single issues, we've never been able to leverage it into something bigger.

I would agree, if we're going to do this, we need to be willing to take on all of the outstanding bilateral differences between Iran and the United States and resolve them in a package; that's the only way this is going to happen.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming that Iran believes -- we've heard the president saying repeatedly we're not taking anything off the table, in terms of what we're willing to do to force action or to force concessions, which leads to the impression that military action, for instance, is on the table. Is it?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I think U.S. military action is very much on the table, but it's at the end of a very long process. Where I would fault the Bush administration is that there's lots of tools that could be used between just engagement, the speaking softly and carrying a big carrot approach, and just military action, speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

GWEN IFILL: Where do you think we are today?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Today, we're in a muddle, but I would argue we could replicate the Gdansk model that worked in 1981 with Solidarity and reach out to independent labor unions. We could be doing much more with civil society, not with any particular political group.

But the key problem with Iran right now is that the government isn't accountable to their own people. The Iranian people are a lot more moderate than the Islamic republic's leadership, and that's what the letter has shown.

The regime and the people

Flynt Leverett
Former CIA Middle East Analyst
I think the president will be reluctant to do a deal with the regime if it ends up that he's, in effect, legitimating this regime that he considers fundamentally illegitimate.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like you're saying that regime change is the ultimate goal here, not just negotiating different bits of this.

MICHAEL RUBIN: The problem, I do believe, is ideology, but there's no reason why Iran should get a free pass. For example, why we should support independent labor in Poland, or the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, or the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and yet say to Iran, "We're going to give you a free pass to do a Tiananmen square," when we don't give a hoot about civil society?

GWEN IFILL: It sounds, Flynt Leverett, like he's talking about you can only make fundamental change if you change the leadership. Is that something that you think is at the root of all of this?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that is very much a widely-shared belief at the higher levels of the Bush administration. I think it undergirds the reluctance of the administration to engage directly with this regime.

Unfortunately, I think the president will be reluctant to do a deal with the regime if it ends up that he's, in effect, legitimating this regime that he considers fundamentally illegitimate. I say that's unfortunate because I think it means we are foregoing real opportunities to get very serious security and political problems addressed, and I don't think that serves American interests very well.

GWEN IFILL: Iran helped the United States in Afghanistan. Iran helped the United States -- at least it's offered to help the United States in Iraq by at least participating in some conversations. Why isn't there some reward due them?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, with friends like these, I would very much disagree with the assessment that Iran has been that helpful in either Afghanistan or in Iraq. Back in 2003, one of the problems was that Iran was sheltering al-Qaida, according to Agence France-Presse, inside revolutionary guard bases, not just passively in the country.

You know, a friend of mine just came back from Tehran and picked up a magazine called "Psychological Operations," which had all various articles about how the Iranians were trying to thwart the liberation of Iraq and the democratization of Iraq. That's not very helpful, and it's one of the reasons why there's so little trust in Iranian sincerity, because the talks which Flynt had talked about back in 2003 and earlier didn't really produce much.

GWEN IFILL: Is that at the root of the lot of this, just basic, old-fashioned lack of trust?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that's an inaccurate reading of the record. I think that Iranian cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was critical to the success of our efforts to get rid of the Taliban and stand up the Karzai government in its stead.

From an Iranian perspective, their reward for that was to be labeled part of the "axis of evil" in President Bush's January 2002 State of the Union address.

There is considerable distrust and historical baggage on both sides; that's part of what makes this a difficult issue to move forward. But to say that that baggage and that mistrust is a reason for not trying, when it is manifestly in U.S. interest to try, I think is a real strategic misjudgment.

Israel and Pakistan

Michael Rubin
Former Pentagon Adviser
It's all well and good to say that we can achieve things through negotiations ... but if your partner is not sincere, then it would be detrimental to American interests to allow the Iranians to run the clock down.

GWEN IFILL: Probably understating it to call this baggage, but there are two big issues, sticking points which seem to always come back. One is Israel and the hostility which Iran, or at least this current president, and past leaders have expressed toward Israel. And the other is Iran's nuclear ambitions.

How huge a sticking point are those two issues for anything that might come out of the United Nations or anything that the United States might be willing to do?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I don't think Israel would be that huge of a sticking point. First of all, there's a pattern that people like to negotiate with chips they don't have. Saddam Hussein did the same thing after the invasion of Kuwait.

But when you talk to Iranians, their main concern on the ground in Iran tends to be much more Pakistan, because when Pakistan tested its nuclear weapon, it did so not too far -- a couple dozen kilometers away from the Iranian border, and the Iranians saw that as a message to them.

However, the big thing we need to get over with this is the fact that Iran doesn't seem to be a status quo power. And it's all well and good to say that we can achieve things through negotiations, that it would be in American interests, but if your partner is not sincere, then it would be detrimental to American interests to allow the Iranians to run the clock down.

GWEN IFILL: Flynt Leverett?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think I would agree with Michael that Israel doesn't need to be a major sticking point. Apart from President Ahmadinejad, Iranian leaders have communicated to the United States in previous overtures that they would be prepared to accept a two-state approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which at least implies they are prepared to recognize the state of Israel.

The issue is, really, what do we want to accomplish, in terms of our relationship with Iran, and how best do we get there? I don't think either regime change, unilateral military action against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, or vainly hoping that the Security Council is going to impose serious sanctions on Iran will get us there.

The channel that might get us there is direct, strategically-grounded diplomacy with Tehran.

GWEN IFILL: Flynt Leverett, Michael Rubin, thank you both very much.